"Have you no shame?”
The voice comes barreling through the hold, snaking around the corners of boxes and through the heavy netting in which Nellie is hiding. She squeezes her eyes shut, coils her long Gelert ears in by her knees, wills herself to stay still and not give herself away.
But the weight of the heavy rope lifts and she utters a small cry.
There, above her, stands Captain Dimitri. Broad and imposing, his thick Meerca tail stiff behind his back, he glowers through bushy eyebrows. “Stowing away on my ship?”
She stutters, not expecting a discovery so early in the journey, and by the captain himself, no less. “S-Sir, I—”
He sniffs and motions two of the crew forward with just a crook of his finger. Her explanation withers and she gulps, feeling herself lifted by the armpits and brought out of the hold.
They encourage her up the splintered ladder, up onto the deck where the sunlight blinds her despite its low place on the horizon.
The other crew-members pause in their tasks to take in the unexpected newcomer in their midst. Her pleading gaze flits between each one, begging for someone to step in and save her. But their eyes are tired, impassive. They are here to do their duties, not to intervene on a trespasser's behalf.
As the clomps of the Captain and his cronies come up the ladder behind her, Nellie eyes the lapping ocean water with rising nausea. Was it really worth it, to try and sail all the way from Krawk Island to the downed Faerieland for a slim shot at employment?
“Word has gotten around of the Corvallio's success,” he chortles, pushing his black hat to keep out the sun's last rays. Several crew-members, including a haggard Lupe, give soft laughs with little joy.
Nellie nervously takes a step backwards—incidentally, towards the gunnel.
“I—I didn't mean any harm,” she says. “I'm sorry, I didn't have the dubloons—”
“It's a measly ten dubloons,” a wry Peophin mutters from the mast. “Ain't much—”
“I had to, though!” Nellie retorts. “The only place left to work on the island is the Golden Dubloon, and they wouldn't...” In frustration, she motions to her garb: a potato sack, more or less, and ratty slippers. “Not fit enough to serve there,” she says, dejected. “They wouldn't loan me a uniform. And the donation centers are all the way across the sea in Neopia Central.”
She whirls to face the surly Meerca, her confidence evaporated at the sight of his scar, his hard and flat eyes. “Please, sir. Let me wash your decks. Scrub the—the sails, I don't know. All I want is work. That's where I was headed: to the Faerieland Employment Agency.”
There's a surge of whispering around her, causing her hackles to rise as the wind moans to match it. What were they saying? Faerieland—it's a scam, that place—don't you need a coupon?
Meanwhile, the captain is scratching his chin.
“Tell me,” he says evenly, “how did you come to be on Krawk Island in the first place? Surely, you had neopoints once.”
Nellie flinches, blinks, looks down at her paws. There's only the sound of the pernicious waters below.
“Yes,” she admits. “I did. And then I went to the Food Club...and I gambled it away.”
She waits for the murmurs, the castigations, to sweep through the crew. But oddly, this time, there's nothing.
Instead, she looks around to see several of them nodding or shrugging.
“Been there,” says the same blue Peophin as before. He hefts a mop over one shoulder.
“Old hat,” yawns a Flotsam. “I'm bunking down for the night, let me know when we have a new story.”
The crew members disperse, some back to their tasks, some towards the hatch she'd just emerged from. Soon, only she, the Captain, and his two First Mates were left in the middle of the deck.
Nellie shifts awkwardly just as the sun gives up its last rays and sinks under the water. The Captain seems to consider her, his eyes taking in her drab vestiges.
“How would you expect us to trust your story, when you've come aboard so dishonestly?” he asks. “My sense of your integrity is not currently...high.”
Nellie gulps. She looks to the wheel, the mast, the sails, the hatch. She casts around for something to say to convince him, to keep him from tossing her overboard like old potatoes.
“Sir, I can't offer much,” Nellie says. “That's my story and I'm not clever enough to come up with something that puts me in a better light. All I have left to say is—please, please don't throw me into the ocean.” She shudders. “Please, sir. I can't swim, sir.”
He chuckles a little at first, then it devolves into an uproar. He holds his belly as he laughs, his tail flicking and twitching in his mirth.
“You stowed away on a ship—an ocean-bound ship—and you can't swim a stroke?”
“Y—yes?” Nellie answers, her teeth chattering. Without the sun, the night's cold is rapidly settling in, and her sack doesn't provide much of a barrier against the elements.
The laughter cauterizes at once, like a board snapping under a great weight. The Captain extends his finger again, one quick crook that means follow. The two mates exchange glances, then follow him past the double-wide doors between the two staircases that lead to the upper deck. Each mate stands stiffly, holding the doors open for her.
Nellie takes one last lingering look at the hatch where she had been so safe, so nestled in between crates and boxes and netting, unheard and unnoticed. There it had been safe of a sorts, the safety found in ignorance and anonymity.
But 'safe' won't necessarily earn her money. So Nellie the Gelert squares her shoulders, takes a deep breath of salt air, and walks through the double doors.
It's dark at first. Then there is a ripping sound, and a flare of flame rises from a match. The match is touched to a lamp, which, when turned up, casts a soft glow about the small room.
Nellie gasps. There is a mighty meal set out on the gilded table: a roast turkey, green grapes, horseradish stew—and, if her eyes aren't deceiving her, a whole chocolate pie.
After two days in a dank hold with only filched potatoes for sustenance, the aroma is overpowering. Nellie chokes a little, her stomach ferociously squealing at such nutritious wealth.
Captain Dimitri takes his seat and starts piling the food on his plate. He motions to the chair opposite him, and then calls his mates in. “Please, little one,” he says. “Sit and dine with us.”
The two mates take their seats and eagerly tuck in, but Nellie is apprehensive. “Me, Sir?” she squeaks.
“Yes, you. All of the crew is fully fed so that they can work at their best capacity. You can't weigh anchor with noodle arms,” he remarks wryly, at which the two mates nod in agreement.
Nellie falls more than sits into the offered chair, his words slowly sinking in. Healing her transgressions—paying off her debts—her hope for a job—it's all possible now. “I—thank—thank you, Sir. You're very kind.”
“Yes, about that,” he mumbles through a mouthful of stuffing. “I do believe the proper nomenclature for a crew-member to address their superior is, in this case, 'Captain.'”
“Thank you, Captain,” Nellie says in earnest, before taking what seems to her a polite amount of biscuits and gravy. She studious avoids the mashed potatoes. “I will serve you to the best of my abilities for as long as you need me.”
The Meerca's eyes glint in amusement. “It might be an easier job than you think, little one. You see, we aren't a trading vessel, as you seem to have assumed.”
The fork stops halfway to Nellie's mouth. “N—no?”
“No.” He savors a bite of the turkey. “In fact, word is out that we're on course to Faerieland, but in fact we're headed to the outskirts of Terror Mountain to make a special delivery. It's that time of year, you know.”
She's honestly lost track of the calendar. “What time of year, Captain?”
His smile is broad, warm, and joyous. “It's the holidays, my dear Gelert. We're on a secret mission to make the first Advent Calendar delivery of the season.”
Nellie's eyes widen. That means—she had been hiding to, not just potatoes, but—
“We have many gifts aboard, gifts to be given freely to every Neopian who makes the trek. And I daresay, your courage is mightier than most. Sell some of the books you're given, and you can make a tidy sum.”
The Advent Calendar? Nellie recalls the peals of bells in Happy Valley and the excited chatter of the line before the Calendar. It's been years since she was remotely in the vicinity.
“We'll take you in and drop you off,” the Captain continues. “They could use the help in handing things out. On one condition.”
“Anything, sir,” Nellie says, humbled beyond measure.
He points the fork at her. “Come back and work for me again after the holiday season is through.” He smiles. “I could use a crew-woman with your kind of gumption.”
Nellie nods through a sip of cranberry juice. “Sure, sir. Just one question.”
He motions for her to speak.
“How did you know I was here? Where I was hidden in the hold?”
A slight smirk plays at his lips, but he pats away some crumbs before answering. “You'd never guess, so I might as well tell you.”
The two mates exchange grins.
The Captain laughs long and hard again, holding his belly. Finally, he takes a deep breath and says: “You bark in your sleep!”